American Heart Month: How to take care of your heart

American Heart Month: how to take care of your heart

February is American Heart Month and there’s no time like the present to get serious about your heart health. Heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States for men, women and people of most racial and ethnic groups. The term “heart disease” refers to several types of heart conditions. The most common type is coronary artery disease, which affects the blood flow to the heart and can lead to a heart attack.

You can reduce your risk for heart disease through lifestyle changes and by choosing healthy habits. A healthy lifestyle can help you keep your blood pressure, cholesterol and blood sugar levels normal. Continue reading to learn more about preventing heart disease and the steps you can take to keep your heart healthy…

What are the signs of poor heart health?

There are several ways to tell if your heart isn’t as healthy as it could be. You may have shortness of breath, chest pain or a racing heart. You may also have trouble keeping up with the people around you when you’re exercising. Other signs may require a visit to the doctor’s office.

“A lot of [the signs] of poor heart health are lab metrics or vital signs that we look at, things like an elevated blood pressure, a high resting heart rate or weight that is more than the recommended amount for your age and gender, lack of physical conditioning or inability to do exercise that someone your age should be able to do, as well as abnormal cholesterol and glucose levels,” said Dr. Alison Bailey, one of HCA Healthcare’s national physician directors for cardiac disease and a board-certified cardiologist at Parkridge Health System. “This is one of the many reasons having regular check-ins with a clinician is important.”

Did you know? Comprehensive heart care is offered across HCA Healthcare with experts in cardiovascular disease, interventional cardiology, electrophysiology and cardiovascular and vascular surgery. Learn more about HCA Healthcare’s network of care.

How does diet affect heart health?

According to Dr. Bailey, diet can either prevent or cause heart disease – and our daily choices determine the outcome.

“We’ve gone from giving very specific recommendations about diet components to giving more general recommendations that focus on overall healthy eating patterns,” Dr. Bailey explained. “And it doesn’t matter if it’s heart health or preventing cancer, dementia or kidney disease. The same diet does all of those things.”

In general, a healthy diet should consist of:

  • Whole foods
  • Fruits and vegetables
  • Fiber-rich whole grains
  • Lean protein (low in saturated fat)
  • Nuts and seeds

A heart-healthy diet should limit:

  • Sugar-sweetened beverages
  • Red meat and processed meat
  • Refined carbohydrates and processed foods
  • Full-fat dairy

It’s also important to avoid saturated and trans fats, Dr. Bailey noted. Saturated fats are found in animal-based foods like beef, pork, poultry, full-fat dairy products and tropical oils like coconut. Saturated fats can cause problems with your cholesterol levels, which can increase your risk of heart disease and stroke.

As you are shopping for food to feed your family, Dr. Bailey recommended reviewing the nutrition label on the food packaging before you add it to your shopping cart. “When you look at the amount of fat a food contains on a nutrition label, you see that it’s further separated into saturated and polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fats. When we talk about heart-healthy fats, polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats are considered heart healthy, but saturated fat is not and should be minimized.”

Dr. Bailey added that although food companies have started introducing plant-based options, they’re not always as healthy as you would think. “A lot of them use chemicals and coconut fat to simulate dairy fat, but coconut contains a lot of saturated fat,” she said. “Just changing dairy for non-dairy doesn’t always mean you’re making a healthier option. Dairy is actually the number one source of saturated fat in the American Diet.”

Maintaining a heart-healthy diet doesn’t have to be difficult, Dr. Bailey said. “A good rule of thumb is to eat as close to nature as possible. So those beans actually look like beans or that corn actually looks like corn and is not ultra-processed,” she added. “And then include as many vegetables in your diet as you can because they have fiber, they’re filling and they’re low calorie.”

Is there a link between mental health and heart health?

The heart and the mind are inextricably linked, and one can have a tremendous impact on the other.

“Individuals who suffer from cardiovascular disease are more likely to experience depression, anxiety and increased stress levels,” Dr. Bailey explained. “We also know that when you have heart disease and experience these disorders, it is important to seek treatment. If these mental health disorders are left untreated, cardiovascular outcomes are worse. This is likely related to many things including adverse effects on lifestyle. For example, a patient with an untreated mental health disorder is less likely to follow exercise and diet recommendations. Biological factors like increased stress hormones can contribute to a poor outcome as well.”

There are options to treat depression, stress and anxiety that don’t require medication Dr. Bailey said, but it’s important to talk to your doctor if you are having any of those symptoms, especially if you have heart disease.

“Depression is very common after a cardiac event. It’s important to recognize the signs of depression — not only sadness but things like irritability or loss of interest in activities — and recognize that there are many effective treatments. For instance, just coming to cardiac rehab helps treat depression. It’s not a pill that you take, but it’s a combination of exercise and a supportive environment that provides reassurance that things are getting better,” she said.

Loneliness and social isolation can also affect cardiovascular health, although it is harder to measure than blood pressure or cholesterol. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we all experienced this with most people not attending social gatherings as much as they did in the past. Studies have shown that there is an increased risk of cardiovascular disease with loneliness and social isolation but researchers are still learning why that happens.

Related article: How HCA Healthcare is supporting the mental health needs of the communities we serve

Keeping your heart health in check

American Heart Month is a good time to remind yourself that keeping your heart healthy doesn’t have to be complicated. Dr. Bailey suggests finding an activity that gets your body moving, even if it’s just for five minutes. If you smoke, consider quitting smoking, and moderate your alcohol consumption. And it’s important to get good sleep and manage your weight. If you have questions about the best ways to keep your heart healthy, be sure to talk to your doctor.

Additionally, you could help save someone else’s life by learning hands-only CPR. When a person experiences a cardiac arrest, their survival depends on immediately receiving CPR. According to the American Heart Association, over 70% of out-of-hospital cardiac arrests happen in homes. “That means if you ever need to perform CPR, it’s likely going to be for someone you love like your family or friends,” said Dr. Bailey.

According to the American Heart Association, hands-only CPR requires only two steps:

  1. Call 911 if you see a teen or adult suddenly collapse
  2. Push hard and fast in the center of the chest to the beat of a familiar song that has 100 to 120 beats per minute. Song examples include “Stayin’ Alive” by the Bee Gees, “Crazy in Love” by Beyoncé featuring Jay-Z, “Hips Don’t Lie” by Shakira” or “Walk the Line” by Johnny Cash. People feel more confident performing Hands-Only CPR and are more likely to remember the correct rate when trained to the beat of a familiar song.

Surgery gives new life to patients with heart failure

HCA Healthcare LVAD patient Charles Pulley in a Nike t-shirt.
Charles Pulley, HCA Healthcare LVAD patient

Over time, coronary artery disease can weaken the heart muscles and lead to heart failure, a serious condition where the heart can’t pump blood the way it should. It can be treated, quite often with strategies to improve symptoms like lifestyle changes, medications, devices and surgical procedures and ongoing medical care.

HCA Healthcare patient Charles Pulley was diagnosed with advanced heart failure, affecting his quality of life. He could only take three or four steps before needing to stop for 15 minutes to catch his breath. “I was sinking. I just felt weak all the time,” he recalled.

Following a visit to his primary care physician, Charles was referred to the Levinson Heart Failure Clinic, part of the HCA Virginia Healthcare network in Richmond, Virginia.

Charles learned part of his heart was no longer able to pump enough blood to the rest of his body. Dr. Nikolas Krishna recommended that a left ventricular assist device – commonly called an LVAD – be implanted to take over the pumping function of Charles’ heart when medication and lifestyle changes failed.

“Of course, I was nervous,” Charles said. “But my daughter, Keisha, encouraged me to do it not just for me but for her.” Keisha’s role as a caregiver after her father’s surgery was key to his successful recovery. It also helped that a patient who had an LVAD operation years earlier shared his personal experience with Charles. “I trusted him, and he was right. The surgery was serious, but within a week after getting the LVAD, I was almost myself again.”

Charles now wears a belt or a vest containing rechargeable batteries and a backup power pack that continuously run his LVAD pump. The entire device is portable, allowing him to resume his normal daily activities. “I don’t mind wearing the battery pack,” he said. “Without it, I don’t think I would be here.”

With renewed energy, Charles is back to spending more time with his family and doing the things he loves. He considers Dr. Krishna and his surgical team “like family”. “They stuck with me through the entire process,” he said. When asked what he would tell other patients considering LVAD surgery, he is encouraging.

“Life is beautiful and getting this surgery gave me my life back. I wouldn’t hesitate to do it again.”

Charles Pulley
HCA Healthcare LVAD patient

About HCA Healthcare

HCA Healthcare, one of the nation's leading providers of healthcare services, is comprised of 183 hospitals and more than 2,300 sites of care, in 20 states and the United Kingdom. Our more than 283,000 colleagues are connected by a single purpose — to give patients healthier tomorrows.

As an enterprise, we recognize the significant responsibility we have as a leading healthcare provider within each of the communities we serve, as well as the opportunity we have to improve the lives of the patients for whom we are entrusted to care. Through the compassion, knowledge and skill of our caregivers, and our ability to leverage our scale and innovative capabilities, HCA Healthcare is in a unique position to play a leading role in the transformation of care.

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